John and his Horses

Arian Knops

John and his Horses

3 mins
June 8, 2021

It seems to me that people who love horses can be nice decent human beings. That is all well and good. To me, horses are, basically, walking pre-canned dog food. I don’t care for them. Like some of my former girlfriends most horses I’ve had contact with were treacherous. They kick, they bite, and they are fussy eaters. 

My godfather, my Mom’s brother John, loved his horses. John was born in 1900, well before the advent of powered farm equipment and thus knew that the difficult tasks were more easily done with horsepower rather than manpower.

John’s choice for horses were Percherons, strong durable animals that, a generation before, helped break the land John farmed. The land, in Morrison County Minnesota, was covered with scattered Oak forests and some grasslands when my great grandfather and his family arrived from Silesia in the late 1800s. The land provided the needed timber for a house, barn, some out buildings, plus the wood too small to be used in construction of the farm provided heat to the home for a good number of years.

My ancestors were smart enough to know that heat in a house was an important part of surviving the rigors of a winter in central Minnesota, so they always had a large pasture heavily endowed with oak trees that they cut only when needed. The oaks also provided good quality shade to the cattle.

But the horses were the stars of the farm. They were the power than made the farm work. Some of my greatest memories of my early youth are of the times when my godfather and his brothers would thresh in the fall. I regret that I never got to ride on one of the wagons of grain hauled in from the fields. That side of my family always worked together rather than compete with each other, a trait lost in most of modern America. The women of the family, including my mom, would cook a meal at noon that few could replicate today, and those women did that task without the benefits of running water or full-time electricity since the co-op was still a year away from running a line past the farm. The wind generator on the farm charged batteries that ran a radio and only a few lightbulbs.  What all these people did was called work.

And as hard as these people worked the horses seemed to work harder. I can still picture my uncle bringing his team into the farmyard with a load of some sort of grain and parking it near the threshing machine and some of the men feeding the shocks of grain into the machine. Since this is now more than seventy years ago and it isn’t crystal clear any longer, but the highlights are still there. John was a bear of a man in blue bib overalls and a booming voice that yelled instructions to the horses as the steam engine, attached to the threshing machine by a long never-ending belt would kick into gear. What fascinated me about the steam engine was a device called a governor that spun and changed shapes the faster it turned. One of John’s sons, who wore a leather apron, was assigned the job of ‘oiler’ on the threshing machine and he seemed to be busy all the time.

The smell of those times lingers in my memory: the scent of the breeze, the sweet bouquet of new-mown grain, the stench of men’s sweat from their toils as it perfumed the fall air and especially the aroma of food cooking while buns and pies and cakes baked to perfection in a wood fired oven. My brothers and the other young kids all got to witness this from the cool lush grass of the front yard. Our contribution was to stay out of the way.

Near the end of the workday, with all the grain needing to be threshed in bins and the straw and chaff in a bee-hive shaped pile, my Uncle would tell everyone else to clean up while he watered the horses. He would unhitch the team and remove harnesses, then John would walk the horses to the stream that flowed through the pasture. He would lead them down, let them drink their fill, and then walk them back to the farmyard where one of his sons would brush them down before putting them in the barn for the night. 

John took delight in the idea that a horse knew when to stop working. “If it’s too hot for a horse to work, it’s too hot for a man.”  Smart man my Uncle.

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Arian Knops

Arian is a short story contributor to the Sentinel & Rural News. Arian has written two full-length thrillers which have received critical and popular acclaim. Arian lives in Bruce, WI, with his charming wife, Arlene.